My Life in Objects: Karl Harrison, Forensic Archaeologist

karl harrison

Karl Harrison is a forensic archaeologist. He’s trained to find, excavate and recover human remains under the most challenging and often harrowing of circumstances.

In this DigVentures mashup of Desert Island Discs and A History of the World in 100 Objects, we asked Karl to pick out the most important objects in his life and career, before finally choosing just one that he’d take with him to a desert island. Here they are:

Wittenham Clumps

Wittenham Clumps - signpost & information board

Ok, so my first choice isn’t an object, but a hillfort. The twin hills of Wittenham Clumps were striking on the otherwise very flat South Oxfordshire skyline where I grew up. We would walk up there when I was a child, and when I was ten years old in Fourth Year at Chalgrove Primary School, Mr Church took our class up to the Clumps to run around like Iron Age hooligans. I think if you can identify with history and archaeology in the landscape around you as a child, it gives you a place from which to begin to study and understand.

I was outstandingly lucky with the opportunities I had to study and explore the past when I was young. I did an A Level in Classics with Dave Ferraro – the most inspirational teacher I’ve ever met. I’ve been sold on archaeology ever since.

My homemade ranging rods

Ranging rod crop

This ranging rod takes me back to the first case I ever supervised as a forensic archaeologist. When I finished my MSc in forensic archaeology I worked as a Scenes of Crime Officer. The two police forces I worked for allowed me to develop my abilities as a forensic archaeologist, identifying historical burials on building sites, examining animal bones brought into police stations by concerned members of the public and working with police search teams.

I had been issued my scenes of crime examination kit, which included some small photo scales, but no ranging rods. I didn’t have much money then, so I cut down some broom handles and painted them red and white to make my own!

I assisted on jobs for a couple of years, but the first body recovery I supervised was a man who had been burnt in a makeshift grave prior to burial – when I look at the scene photographs now and see my homemade ranging rods it brings me back to when I started out.

My car

car boot

I currently wear two hats – I’m a lecturer in Forensic Archaeology at Cranfield University and Director of Alecto Forensics; a specialist forensic services provider. For me, it’s the best of both worlds; I love teaching, research and casework.

One of the most exciting but challenging aspects of forensic archaeology casework is that you can be required to attend briefings or crime scenes at very short notice, anywhere in the country. The company gives me a car, which always has my scene kit packed in the back, just in case.

Evidence bags

evidence bag

Field archaeologists often get asked “what’s the best thing you’ve ever found”, but that’s a difficult question to answer as a forensic archaeologist!

Locating buried bodies is challenging. We have a range of search techniques, including victim recovery dogs and geophysical search methods, all of which succeed in indicating aspects associated with buried remains, but none of which can definitely identify them. Over large search areas, this can mean we have to coordinate searches that can take days or weeks on occasion.

That said, it doesn’t stop the thrill of certain acts of recovery – a feeling we can share with any other archaeologist. It’s just that for me, the equivalent would be removing a highly decomposed body from the scene without changing its position; or finding direct evidence of criminal activity, like tool marks from the side of a grave.

My dad’s lock knife

Opinel lock knife

I keep my dad’s lock knife in my scene kit; an unobtrusive bit of my own personal history. My dad loved roman history and archaeology. He was an electronic engineer, and a very good one, but if he’d had the opportunity I think he would have loved to have studied archaeology. Just before he died, and as I was finishing my studies, we went to a conference together and that was very special.

My stepdaughter is also now just finishing her BA in archaeology, and considering her options for Masters courses that will help her to stay in the field; we like very different things in archaeology, and it’s a sign of how broad and healthy the discipline is that it satisfies both of us. It will make me immensely proud to pass my dad’s lock knife on to my stepdaughter.

My desert island object would be…


My final object to take away to a desert island is the book I bore people silly with; Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’. It’s a fictionalised account of fantastical and allegorical cities supposedly being described by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. Not only is the translation beautiful, but woven in amongst the descriptions of the city is Calvino’s sensitivity to the relationship between the lives of people and the objects that surround them. The longer I’ve spent thinking about archaeology, the more incredible insights I’ve found crystallised in this book – absolutely perfect for long days on a desert island!

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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